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Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

Almost Heaven (42 page)

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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She broke off, glaring at the butler who appeared in the doorway and caused her to stop speaking. “Excuse me, your grace,” he said to Alexandra, “but Mr. Bentner begs a word with you.”

“Who is Mr. Bentner?” the dowager demanded irritably when Alexandra instantly agreed to see him in the drawing room.

“Elizabeth’s butler,” Alex explained with a smile. “He’s the most delightful man – he’s addicted to mystery novels.”

A moment later, while the dowager looked on in sharp disapproval, a stout, white-haired man clad in slightly shabby black coat and trousers marched boldly into the drawing room and seated himself beside Alexandra without much as a by-your-leave. “Your note said you have a plan to help Miss Elizabeth , out of her coil, Miss Alex,” he said eagerly. “I brought Berta myself so I could hear it.”

“It’s a little vague yet, Bentner,” Alex admitted. “Basically
,
if we’re going to re-present her to society tonight and see if we can’t live down that old scandal over Mr. Thornton.”

“That
blackguard!”
Bentner spat. “The sound of his name makes my knuckles ache for a poke at him!” For emphasis, he shook his fist.

“It has the same effect on me,” Alex admitted wryly. “That’s as far as we’ve planned.”

He stood up to leave, patted Alexandra’s shoulder, and blithely informed the elderly noblewoman who terrified half he ton with her stony hauteur, and who was already glowering at him for his familiarity with Alex, “You’ve got yourself a fine girl here, your grace. We’ve known Miss Alex since she was a girl chasin’ frogs at our pond with Miss Elizabeth.” The dowager did not reply.

She sat in frigid silence, and only her eyes moved, following his progress out the door.
“Alexandra,”
she said awfully, but Alex laughed and held out her hand.

“Don’t berate me for familiarity with the servants, I beg you, Grandmama. I cannot change, and it only upsets you. Besides, you were about to tell me something that seemed important when Bentner arrived.”

Diverted from her ire at indecorous servants, the dowager aid severely, “You were so concerned in the salon that we lot keep Elizabeth in an agony of doubt in here that you have me no time to discuss some pertinent facts that may cause you some grave concern – that is, if you aren’t already ,ware of them.”

“What facts?”

“Have you seen the newspaper today?”

“Not yet. Why?”

“According to the
Times
and the
Gazette,
Stanhope himself is here in London and has just affirmed Ian Thornton as his grandson and legal heir. Of course, it’s been whispered for years that Thornton is his grandson, but only a few knew it for a fact.”

“I had no idea,” Alex said absently, thinking how grossly unfair it was that the unprincipled libertine who’d brought so much unhappiness into Elizabeth’s life should be enjoying such good fortune at the same moment Elizabeth’s future looked so bleak. “I never heard of him until six weeks ago, when we returned from our trip and someone mentioned his name in connection with the scandal over Elizabeth.”

“That’s hardly surprising. Prior to this past year he was rarely mentioned in
polite
drawing rooms. You and Jordan left on your trip before the scandal over Elizabeth occurred, so there’s no reason you would have heard of him in connection with that, either.”

“How could such a wretched blackguard convince someone to legitimize him as his heir?” Alex said angrily.

“I daresay he didn’t need to be ‘legitimized,’ if I take your meaning. He is Stanhope’s natural and legitimate grandson. Your husband told me that in confidence years ago. I also know,” she added meaningfully, “that
Jordan
is one of the very few people to whom Thornton has ever admitted it.”

Alexandra’s feeling of disaster increased, and she slowly put her teacup back in the saucer. “Jordan?” she repeated in an alarmed voice. “Why on earth would a scoundrel like that have confided in
Jordan,
of all people?”

“As you well know, Alexandra,” the duchess said bluntly, “your husband did not always live a life that was above reproach. He and Thornton ran with much the same crowd in their wilder days – gaming and drinking and doing whatever debauched things men do. It was this friendship of theirs that I feared you might not know of.”

Alex closed her eyes in misery. “I was counting on Jordan’s support to help us launch Elizabeth tonight. I’ve written to him explaining how dreadfully Elizabeth was treated by the most unspeakable cad alive, but I didn’t mention his name. I never imagined Jordan would know of Ian Thornton, let alone be
acquainted
with such a person. I was so
certain
,” she added heavily, “that if he met Elizabeth, he would do everything in his power to help put the right face on things tonight.”

Reaching across the settee, the dowager squeezed her hand and said with a gruff smile, “We both know that Jordan would give you his full support if you wished to stand against foe
or
friend, my dear. However, in this instance you may not have his unconditional
empathy
when he finds out who the ‘unspeakable cad’ is. It is that which I wished to warn you about.”

“Elizabeth mustn’t know of this,” Alex said fiercely. “She’ll be so uneasy around Jordan – and I couldn’t blame her. There is simply no justice in life!” she added, glowering at the unopened issue of the
Times
lying on the side table. “If there were, that-that despoiler of innocents would never be a marquess now, while Elizabeth has to be afraid to show her face in society. I don’t suppose there’s the slightest chance,” she added hopefully, “that he didn’t get a shilling or a piece of property with the title? I could endure it better if he were still a penniless Scots cottager or a down-at-the heel gambler.”

The duchess snorted indelicately. “There’s no chance of that, my dear, and if that’s what Elizabeth believes he is, she’s been duped.”

“I don’t think I want to hear this,” Alex said with an angry sigh. “No, I have to know. Tell me, please.”

“There’s little to tell,” the dowager said, reaching for her gloves and starting to draw them on. “Shortly after the scandal with Elizabeth, Thornton vanished. Then, less than a year ago, someone – whose name was not divulged for a long time – bought that splendid estate in Tilshire, named it Montmayne, and began renovations, with an army of carpenters employed to do the work. A few months later a magnificent town house in Brook Street was sold – again to an ‘undivulged purchaser.’ Massive renovations began the next week on it, too. Society was all agog, wondering who the owner was, and a few months ago Ian Thornton drew up in front of number eleven Upper Brook Street and walked into the house. Two years ago the rumor was that Thornton was a gambler and no more, and he was assuredly
persona non grata
in most respectable homes. Today, however, I have the sad task of telling you, he’s said to be richer than Croesus, and he’s welcome in almost any drawing room he cares to set foot in – not that he cares to very often, fortunately.” Standing up to leave, she finished in a dire voice, “You may as well face the rest of it now, because you’ll have to face it this evening.”

“What do you mean?” Alex asked, wearily arising.

“I mean that Elizabeth’s prospects for success tonight were drastically reduced by Stanhope’s announcement this morning.”

“Why?”

“The reason is simple. Now that Thornton has a title to go with his wealth, what happened between him and Elizabeth will be overlooked by the
ton
as a ‘gentleman’s sport,’ but it will continue to stain her reputation. And there’s one more thing,” she added in her most dire tone.

“I’m not certain I can bear it. What is it?”  

“I,” her grace announced, “do
not
have a good feeling about this evening!”

Neither did Alex at that moment. “Tony has agreed to escort Elizabeth tonight, and Sally is in accord,” she said idly, referring to her brother-in-law and his wife, who was still at home in the country. “I wish, though, her escort was someone else – an eligible bachelor above reproach, someone everyone looks up to, or better yet
fears.
Roddy Carstairs would have been the
perfect
one. I’ve sent him an urgent message to present himself to me here at his earliest convenience, but he is not expected back until tonight or tomorrow. He would be the perfect one, if I could convince him to do it. Why, most people in society positively tremble in fear of his cutting remarks.”

“They tremble in fear of
me,”
said the dowager with pride.

“Yes, I know,” Alex said with a wan smile. “No one will dare to give Elizabeth the cut direct in front of you, but Roddy might be able to terrify everyone into actually accepting her.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. When and where are we all to gather tonight for this ill-fated debacle?”

Alex rolled her eyes and smiled reassuringly. “We’ll leave from here at ten-thirty. I asked Jordan to meet us at the Willingtons’ receiving line so that we can all go down to the ballroom together.”

CHAPTER 20

At eight-thirty that night Ian stood on the steps outside Elizabeth’s uncle’s town house suppressing an almost overwhelming desire to murder Elizabeth’s butler, who seemed to be inexplicably fighting down the impulse to do bodily injury to Ian. “I will ask you again, in case you misunderstood me the last time,” Ian enunciated in a silky, ominous tone that made ordinary men blanch.
“Where is your mistress?”

Bentner didn’t change color by so much as a shade.
“Out!”
he informed the man who’d ruined his young mistress’s life and had now appeared on her doorstep, unexpected and uninvited, no doubt to try to ruin it again, when she was at this very moment attending her first ball in years and trying bravely to live down the gossip
he
had caused.

“She is out, but you do not know where she is?”

“I did not say so, did I?”

“Then
where
is she?”

“That is for me to know and you to ponder.”

In the last several days Ian had been forced to do a great many unpleasant things, including riding across half of England, dealing with Christina’s irate father, and finally dealing with Elizabeth’s repugnant uncle, who had driven a bargain that still infuriated him. Ian had magnanimously declined her dowry as soon as the discussions began. Her uncle, however, had the finely honed bargaining instincts of a camel trader, and he immediately sensed Ian’s determination to do whatever was necessary to get Julius’s name on a betrothal contract. As a result, Ian was the first man to his knowledge who had ever been put in the position of
purchasing
his future wife for a ransom of £150,000.

Once he’d finished that repugnant ordeal he’d ridden off to Montmayne, where he’d stopped only long enough to switch his horse for a coach and get his valet out of bed. Then he’d charged off to London, stopped at his town house to bathe and change, and gone straight to the address Julius Cameron had given him. Now, after all that, Ian was not only confronted by Elizabeth’s absence, he was confronted by the most insolent servant he’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. In angry silence he turned and walked down the steps. Behind him the door slammed shut with a thundering crash, and Ian paused a moment to turn back and contemplate the pleasure he was going to have when he sacked the butler tomorrow.

He climbed into his coach and instructed his driver to turn the horses back to his house in Upper Brook Street, and there he alighted. His own butler opened the door with proper respect, and Ian strode past him, scowling and restless. He was halfway up the staircase when he decided his evening would pass more quickly if he spent it somewhere other than here, contemplating the rebellion he’d probably face in Elizabeth tomorrow.

Twenty-five minutes later he emerged from the town house formally attired for an evening of faro, and instructed his coachman to take him to the Blackmore. He was still scowling when he strode into the dimly lit, exclusive gentlemen’s club where he had gambled at high stakes for years. “Good evening,
my lord,
” the head footman intoned, and Ian nodded curtly, suppressing a grimace at the obsequious use of my lord.

The card room was elegantly appointed and well populated by the
creme de la creme
of society who preferred straight gambling to the gossip that all too often made White’s a dead bore, and by less illustrious but equally wealthy gentlemen who preferred to play for only the very high stakes that were required at the Blackmore. Pausing at the entrance to the card room, Ian started to leave and head for the faro room when a laughing voice remarked from his immediate left, “For a man who’s just inherited a small empire, Ian, you have a remarkably sour expression on your face. Would you care to join me for a drink and a few hands of cards, my lord?”

An ironic smile twisted Ian’s lips as he turned to acknowledge one of the few aristocrats he respected and regarded as a friend. “Certainly,” he mocked,
“Your Grace.”

Jordan Townsende laughed. “It gets a little tedious, does it not?”

BOOK: Almost Heaven
6.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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